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11 Nov 2008 : Column 237WH—continued

Nearly all the proposals that we see these days insist that the individual must believe something and the state must do so, too. If just the state had a view of the
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individual’s condition, it would be involuntary euthanasia. If it was left entirely to the individual to judge their need of state euthanasia, we would have assisted suicide for depressives and the like. Both of those are unacceptable, so the only currently mooted proposals involve an individual regarding their life as intolerable, worthless, unbearable or lacking in human dignity and the state endorsing that choice. Their view on their condition is thought to need state, medical or social sanction. Most current proposals and most current laws—whether in Oregon, Holland or wherever—reflect that. An individual states a view of their predicament, and some authority agrees that that is rational. Grounds are stated by the individual.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has put together quite a cogent argument, but something that he has not addressed and that has not been addressed at any time during the debate is that totally unregulated area that has entered modern life—the internet. On the internet, there is access to information about dying and how to take one’s life. There is no regulation of that and there is also—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short.

Mrs. Moon: I apologise, Mr. Martlew. On some of those sites, there is also encouragement to take one’s life. Is that not an area that we should, as far as possible, take responsibility for moderating and controlling?

Dr. Pugh: I agree, but that is probably outwith the remit of the debate. I am simply making the point that there is a generic quality to every proposal that we see. Grounds are stated by an individual, and those grounds are then agreed by the state. Let us consider the recent case of Daniel James, who was not dying in the ordinary sense. In many cases, his choice was presented in the media as the right choice. It was agreed that his life was unbearable, a burden and so on. However, I have the same concerns as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I received an e-mail from a constituent of mine, and I will read a small section of it. My constituent, Dr. Sue Garner-Jones, wrote:

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is my friend in the real world, not only in terms of the jargon that we use in discussions. However, I fundamentally disagree with him on this matter, and I am surprised that, as Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, he is attacking our party policy. Surely, if he votes with his conscience against
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assisted dying, he must accept that he is denying the consciences of other people, such as Daniel James, Christopher Pailthorpe, Debbie Purdy and Diane Pretty—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be short. I am sure that everyone wants the Minister to reply.

Dr. Pugh: I am finishing, Mr. Martlew. My key point is that whatever their condition, some people will choose to react in one way and some in another. That applies right down to motor neurone disease. Last year, I had an intern whose father had motor neurone disease and appeared before Lord Joffe’s committee. The father died during the time that the intern was with me.

In deciding to authorise assisted dying, the state must take a view on the reasonableness of one action or another, and take the consequences. We can get out of that conclusion only if the state can unequivocally identify those conditions that individuals ought not willingly to have to bear. That cannot be done satisfactorily and with clarity without having a secular state with clear, immutable values. There is no evidence that the state has those values nor expectation that it will have or that other states will be able to do so. Over time and between countries, there will be marked differences on this matter.

My conclusion—this is my personal analysis—is that any argument presented must confront the accusation that we will be replacing the clear, albeit discretionary, law that we have now with a discretionary but fundamentally unclear law. We must answer that point.

12.13 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I will endeavour to cover the four corners of the debate as best I can in the short time available. First, we must realise that the question is not whether the law is clear. It is. The question is whether it is the right law and, if it is not right, how we should change it.

Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 states:

That could not be clearer. The one thing that criminal law must be, whether in the Suicide Act or any other aspect, is certain as to its meaning and effect. It is in respect of the effect of the legislation that certainty is beginning to leave us. It is not for me to say today where that certainty should be recovered—in a new law or in the strict implementation of the current law, or somewhere in between.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on bringing this subject to our attention. The topic is difficult to grasp and sometimes embarrassing to talk about. However, as parliamentarians, we must think about it from time to time. The Suicide Act was passed in 1961—nearly 50 years ago. No statute is necessarily apt for all time, and it may be that Parliament will, following the advice of the divisional court and the recent judgment of Lord Justice Scott Baker, reach a conclusion that may last us for another 50 years. We should not shrink from having that debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on at least beginning that process, even if we do not reach a conclusion today.

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The question we need to have answered is: what should the law be? The answer cannot come from the courts, albeit that the courts are—this may surprise the professional politicians among us—reasonably good at reflecting public opinion and expressing it in a coherent and rational way. In the recent case, Lord Justice Scott Baker emphasised that the case was not about whether it should continue to be a criminal offence in this country to help another person, whatever the circumstances, to take their own life: that was a matter for Parliament and not the courts. Nor was it about whether someone could obtain, in advance, immunity from prosecution for helping another person to travel to another country where assisted suicide is lawful for the purpose of an assisted suicide. That question had already been decided in the negative by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in the case of Diane Pretty.

We should not mislead ourselves by referring to that recent case or any earlier case. We as a Parliament must decide on a matter of public policy about where the law should be directed. As I said a moment ago, we must grapple with that decision with some vigour. Given the increasing number of cases and the publicity that this sort of law attracts, we cannot simply let matters lie. We cannot avoid the debate. I am not suggesting that the law necessarily needs to be changed, but we must be clear what we are about. If that requires us to think for ourselves, so much the better.

The hon. Gentleman has made it clear, on other occasions if not this one, that in the past, most Members of Parliament would have considered life to be God-given and that it was not for human beings to step into the shoes of the Almighty to terminate it. However, society and the way that Members of Parliament think and have been brought up has changed considerably, not only in the past 50 years, but in the past 150 years. It is still shocking that in the five years prior to 1958, 3,000 people were convicted not of assisted suicide, but of the crime of attempted suicide. Of those, nearly 200 were sent to prison. Within most of our lifetimes, people have been sent to prison for attempting to kill themselves. Those figures shock us, but today we tend to think of those who attempt suicide as people who need help and pity, not condemnation and punishment.

I suspect that we are beginning to think differently about those who want to end their own life for their own private reasons. It is not for me to provide an answer or rewrite the law, but it is important that the process of thinking begin. We should not be embarrassed to take outside advice or to allow ideas to be tested—some to destruction, some to the fruition of greater thoughts. Before I rose to speak, eight Members brought their personal, political and philosophical experiences to the debate. I have been impressed by, among other things, the absolute conviction that doing nothing and not having the debate is no longer an option. We must apply our minds both outside and inside Parliament to ensure that we create a set of laws and a regime that will be apt for the next 50 years, if not for all time.

You will readily appreciate, Mr. Martlew, that I am not a philosopher, a scientist or a doctor. I am not even a priest. However, whatever the legal answer to the question, “What is the law?”, we need to deal with the vexed and vexing question that surrounds the present law on assisted dying. It needs to be put into shape by Parliament. That, as I said a moment ago, is our duty. It is a duty from which we must not shrink.

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The present state of affairs is increasingly under attack, but no statutory answer to the problem has been found. We reopened the debate today, but we have not concluded it—and I do not suppose that the Minister will do so. However, from my party’s point of view it is a question with which we shall have to come to grips, if not today then over the next few years. It cannot be allowed to rumble on in this unsatisfactory way.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate. The subject has clearly aroused enormous interest, and we have had an excellent debate—short but good.

We heard contributions from all sides; the arguments were well thought through and passionately stated, and the strongly held beliefs expressed were frequently based on personal experience and personal philosophy rather than party politics. Consequently, the three Liberal Democrat Members here today reflect three different positions. We have heard the Liberal Democrat Front- Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), repudiating his own policy. We have seen the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) flanked by people who passionately disagree with everything that he said. Similarly, different views have been expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

This debate is clearly not one that we needed to start. It is ongoing. Others with an interest—including Dignity in Dying, or the Voluntary Euthanasia Society—continue to press on the subject. Although Parliament has not changed its settled view since 1961, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made clear the debate has not been in suspended animation. I have no doubt that it will continue.

I wish to make it clear that I agree very much with what hon. Members said about the state of the current law. There is no doubt that the position is clear. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, until the Suicide Act 1961 was passed, one could be sent to prison for attempting suicide if one managed to survive the attempt, and frequently people were imprisoned for such offences. Section 2 of that Act deals with the highly unusual offences of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide or attempted suicide of another. It is not unique, but it is unusual because it criminalises something that is not itself an offence. There is a similar offence under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, but the provision is highly unusual.

The crime of complicity in suicide—it is still a crime—covers a variety of situations. As we heard today, it covers situations of widely different moral culpability. There is a continuum, but Members would draw the line at different places. One merit of having a clear law is that it draws a clear line. However, as the hon. and learned Gentleman and others have said, one must then consider how to enforce it. If one has a clear line and no enforcement, is the position any clearer? That question has been the nub of our debate.

In the context of concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) in her brief intervention about technological advances and the
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use of the internet to encourage suicide, the Government have reviewed the situation. We have considered the current state of the law, as has the Law Commission. Among other things, the commission said that it believes the current law to be about right.

Having reviewed the matter, the Government, too, believe that the present law covers encouraging suicide on the internet. However, because equivalent provisions have been replaced in the rest of the criminal law, we believe that there would be benefits in updating and clarifying the language. We have said that we intend to do that when parliamentary time allows. I cannot say this morning, before the Queen’s Speech, when that might be—whether it will be sooner or later—but we have made it clear that we intend to simplify and modernise the language of existing offences. It will be done when parliamentary time allows.

Mr. Blunt: The Minister says when “parliamentary time allows”, but on behalf of all who have taken part in this debate—I presume that we all want this debate to continue—may I ask her to ask the Leader of the House to give us the opportunity to debate the matter properly, on the Floor of the House in Government time?

Maria Eagle: I can certainly draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to the hon. Gentleman’s request, but he could do it himself at business questions on Thursday.

Mr. Blunt: But not as efficiently.

Maria Eagle: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do so, but I can draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the Official Report of today’s debate, if that is of any assistance.

Mr. Blunt: So that is a no.

Maria Eagle: It is not a no. It is not fair to say that. I have undertaken to draw the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will also do so.

It is clear from today’s debate that there are passionately held but differing views between parties. People can often be divided into those who have seen death closely—frequently the death of a loved one, and a number of Members have referred to their own experience in that respect; I, too, have had such an experience—and those who have not. That is one factor that may cause people to come to a conclusion on the subject. The experience of Mrs. Winifred Crew was prayed in aid by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. She is a constituent of mine, and I have discussed the matter with her. Others come to a view and face up to the concerns and difficulties of this aspect of the law through constituents who have faced such issues, even if we ourselves have not.

The debate was good partly because it was non-party political. It proceeded from our experiences and those of our constituents. It will continue to do so. It is difficult to be clear what the law should be—if one accepts that it should change—and what safeguards we should have. The debate was clearly between what I might call the slippery slope argument and the safeguards
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argument. One person’s slippery slope can be another person’s safeguard. Some take the view that the difficulties are so great that the capacity to draw a line somewhere in this new grey area, if we are to step over the current line, is such that it is not possible to change. That is the debate that is needed.

Dr. Evan Harris: Does the Minister agree with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that no safeguard could ever work, and that even if we wanted to change the law—I am not saying that she should tell us her view—we should not go there because no safeguards could protect the vulnerable? If she does agree with the hon. Gentleman, does she accept that we have a crisis now? Vulnerable people could, for the reasons he gave, refuse treatment even when they were not terminally ill and thereby bring about their death, because they had been coerced directly or felt that they were being coerced? Does she agree with him?

Maria Eagle: I agree that there are pros and cons to the status quo, and I can see that there will be pros and cons to any change, or to the line being drawn in any particular place that might be suggested. We need a consensus in society and in Parliament before any change can be made—if, indeed, there is an acceptance among Members of Parliament that the law ought to be changed. The moral dilemmas and difficulties are great. We all have different views, as do the political parties, on precisely where that line should be drawn.

This morning’s debate has indicated that this is a live issue and a matter that parliamentarians and Governments must and will continue to consider. I have no doubt that there will be opportunities for those on all sides of the argument to debate the subject and to propose measures to change the law in one way or another. We will have the opportunity to take those decisions.

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Boundary Review (Devon)

12.30 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I believe that I am the only Member for a Devonshire constituency who was born in the county, so I feel some emotion about any changes made to it. It is the county of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Chichester, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Agatha Christie and Sir Joshua Reynolds—so many famous people have come from my county. Unfortunately, a flawed process is under way looking at how the county is managed. It has been marred by the misinterpretation of criteria and guidance, which has led to conclusions that have upset everyone and failed to achieve any obvious service delivery improvements, taxpayer savings or enhanced democracy anywhere in the historic and beautiful county of Devonshire. Specifically, the process has disadvantaged one of the two unitary authorities—namely, Torbay. The process is flawed because it is top-down and seeks to fix a problem that may not exist. It has no identifiable grass-roots support and fails to recognise what problems may exist and how improvements could be made for the people of Devon.

I am an advocate of unitary local government supported by independent precepting parish or town councils, but I fear that the way in which the review has been handled will result in the worst of all worlds for all areas of the county. The boundary committee for England ought not to be allowed to move the goalposts and change its interpretation of the guidance once the process has begun. That is a serious allegation, but, on 6 February, guidance was published for communities and local government in response to the decision not to allow Exeter city council to become a unitary authority. Section 8 of the guidance stated:

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